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Morsels of Advice

Posted on Monday, October 31, 2011 at 10:39 AM

A book worth your attention.

By Peter P. Jacobi

Each year, the University of Notre Dame sponsors a gathering of the distinguished, one designed to encourage emulation and engender inspiration. It's the Red Smith Lecture in Journalism series, meant to honor the legendary sports columnist, a revered alumnus of the university and an exemplar of stellar reporting and writing, in his case mostly about sports.

Robert Schmuhl, who holds the Walter H. Annenberg-Edmund P. Joyce Chair in American Studies and Journalism at Notre Dame, has compiled and edited a collection of the lectures, Making Words Dance: Reflections on Red Smith, Journalism, and Writing (Andrews McMeel Publishing).

The content extends beyond the boundaries of this column in that it deals with all sorts of journalistic issues: societal, ethical, political, structural, and financial, as well as editorial. But strewn about in the book's close to 300 pages of talks and dialogues are sage and savvy editorial morsels of advice. In addition, the book contains samples of Red Smith's lucid prose, these alone making a read-through worthwhile.

Editor Schmuhl says the lecture series has sought to foster good reporting and writing. He quotes Red Smith: "The guy I admire most in the world is a good reporter. I respect a good reporter, and I'd like to be called that. I'd like to be considered good and honest and reasonably accurate. The reporter has one of the toughest jobs in the world - getting as near the truth as possible is a terribly tough job."

From the fourteen selected talks, given between 1983 and 2008, here is a sampling of reminders and recommendations. And since it was Red Smith who contributed the oft-repeated observation, "Writing is easy. All you do is sit down at the typewriter and open a vein," it seems highly appropriate to focus on such practicalities, as gleaned from addresses given in his memory.

Ideas, Clarity, Tone

The widely syndicated columnist James Kilpatrick, who counseled us on writing in countless pieces, told his audience in 1985: "Our task is deceptively simple. It is as deceptively simple as the task of carpenters who begin by nailing one board to another board. Then other boards are nailed to other boards and, lo, we have a house. Just so, as writers, we put one word after another word, and we connect those words to other words and, lo, we have a news story or an editorial or, if it goes badly, a plate of spaghetti."

Kilpatrick continued: "The carpenter has to begin with a plan; the writer must begin with a thought. There must be at least a germ of an idea. Before the first board is nailed to the second board, or the first word connected to the second word, there has to be some clear notion of where we expect to be when we have finished nailing or writing."

He spoke of Smith's journalistic strengths.

Such as: "He taught himself to look intently at whatever he was writing about. At a racetrack, he was not content to write generally about a colorful crowd or a fine spring day. Through his eyes, we saw the jockey's silks, Kelly green and buttercup yellow; we enjoyed a 5-knot breeze and a temperature in the 60s."

Such as: "He put clarity first. . . . Without clarity, we are nothing."

Such as: "He knew how to sustain a tone."

Such as: "I will make a small bet that he wrote slowly and read his copy right to the moment he had to put it on the wire. . . . One shortcoming of so many writers today is that they do not take pains, they do not recast their flawed sentences, they do not edit their copy for the sense of it, and they wind up with what I have come to call mangles and tangles."

Of all things above, I've written many times in these columns. Kilpatrick has said them again in recounting the practices of Red Smith, and he's done so most eloquently.

Good Writing Comes from Good Reading

The late Charles Kuralt of CBS fame had the knack for conversational writing. He seemed to come by it ever so naturally. But in his 1986 lecture, he hinted at a process in his development and of the need to use the language with care because care is the start to a successful writing venture.

"Proper usage," he said, "is only the foundation of the house the writer is trying to build, however. The risers, beams, and rafters are subject matter, and the wallpaper and furniture of the house are all style. I think good writing comes from good reading. I am sure of that, in fact. I think writing is imitative. When I sit down to write, I know that I hear in my head the rhythms of writers I have read and admired . . . I think all the good writers hear the music of good writing they've read. The great writers like Red Smith compose new music for the rest of us to hear when we sit down at the typewriter."

I continue to encourage my students to read by providing them with samples of writing I admire. And, of course, to do that, I keep reading, so to find new samples of admirable writing to pass along.

Visual Writing

Eugene Roberts, who as executive editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer led his staff to 17 Pulitzer Prizes in 18 years, lectured in 1994. And what did he emphasize? Visual writing, that's what, and again a pet goal of mine in columns past. Here's how Roberts put it: "It took me years to appreciate it, but there is no better admonition to the writer than 'Make me see.' There is no truer blueprint for successful writing than making your readers see. It is the essence of great writing."

Personal Guidelines from Jim Lehrer

Jim Lehrer, the admired host of the evening news on PBS, was the chosen speaker in 2002. He shared a set of personal guidelines, among them the following:

"Do nothing I cannot defend."

    "Cover, write, and present every story with the care I would want if the story were about me."
    "Assume there is at least one other side or version to every story."
    "Assume personal lives are a private matter until a legitimate turn in the story absolutely mandates otherwise."
    "Carefully separate opinion and analysis from straight news stories, and clearly label everything."
And who can argue with those?

Be Skeptical without Being Cynical

Media critic Ken Auletta, the 2005 Red Smith Lecturer, included in his list of considerations for the future of journalism the following: "Objectivity is a false God. We are human beings, and we screw up or have biases that are hidden from us. But fairness is possible; balance is possible; not stereotyping the people we write about is possible; conveying complexity is possible. We can be skeptical without being cynical."

Indeed so.

And there is much, much more in Making Words Dance about journalistic practices, about journalism as a force too important to be abused by its practitioners, about a profession that can best be strengthened from within. The book is worth your attention.

Peter P. Jacobi is a Professor Emeritus at Indiana University. He is a writing and editing consultant for numerous associations and magazines, speech coach, and workshop leader for various institutions and corporations. He can be reached at 812-334-0063.

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